Friday, September 15, 2017

Things we like: Early Stones, Joni Mitchell, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

These days, I listen to records the way I did when I was a teenager, and had my mother asking "Don't you have that one already?" every time I walked into the house with a new LP -- which was frequently, especially once I'd started working at the hipi record store in the next town, where I'd been riding my bike to hang out every Saturday for a year, as soon as I turned 16. Frugal Depression-era parents taught us the value of getting the most for every dollar spent, so I'd play an LP side I liked three or four times a day, sometimes going months before I turned the record over. I couldn't understand it when my boss told me he'd read in one of the trades that the average LP sold was played three times. Three. My mind boggled then, and it does now, too.

While I'm now too busy to listen closely all the time, I like the total immersion method, by which I endeavor to wring every drop of experience out of music, whether it's old and familiar or new to these feedback-scorched ears. (I've been swinging behind the pitch -- typically by about five years or longer -- since I was "discovering" the first wave of Brit invaders around the time Led Zep, Grand Funk, and Black Sabbath were the favored listening of my age cohort. By now, of course, I've gotten much, much worse.)

Big Mike Richardson, of whom I've written recently, has undertaken the project of listening to all of his Rolling Stones records -- US and UK, LPs, EPs, and singles -- and sharing his impressions via Facebook. While I've never been the kind of completist collector Big Mike is and our mutual friend Mike Woodhull (RIP) was, I own as many records by the Stones as I do by practically anybody. This week, thanks to Big Mike, I'm listening to UK copies of the Stones' self-titled debut (which bore a cover shot of the band as striking as the Beatles on Meet the.../With the..., and was called England's Newest Hitmakers here, a title awkward enough to give The Who Sings My Generation a run for its money) and No. 2 (which has the same great cover shot as 12 x 5, which Wikipedia informs us was actually released here first). It's been fun obsessing over the differences in versions that I used to love back before everything was instantly available, when it sometimes took years to track down a rec I was curious about.

The UK debut is nearly identical to its US analog, with one notable exception: the substitution of Bo Diddley's "I Need You Baby," which appeared on The Rolling Stones, Now! (third US LP, for those of you keeping score at home) as "Mona (I Need You Baby)," in place of "Not Fade Away," a single that hit there and flopped here, but isn't included on the Brit album because that just wasn't done in a country where World War II rationing ended the year Elvis cut his first sides for Sam Phillips and folks demanded value for money in a way my folks could have appreciated. The album's heavy on blues and R&B covers that sound like overstimulated young men being set free, and a single original ("Tell Me") that sounds like the greatest Doc Pomus song he didn't write for the Drifters.

No. 2 has seven songs familiar from Now! interspersed with four from 12 x 5 and one ringer (an ace cover of Muddy's "I Can't Be Satisfied" that wasn't released here until More Hot Rocks in '71). To me, it's a better way of hearing 'em, since I already have the German Around and Around LP that compiles all the other 12 x 5 songs (which appeared on the UK Five By Five EP) plus a couple of singles and 75% of the Stones' self-titled UK EP. Confused yet? You ought to be. Now, I'm motivated to seek out copies of the soul cover-heavy UK Out of Our Heads, which I owned back when I was still playing records on a turntable I bought from Woodhull for five bucks (which required a nickel on the tone arm to make it track) through my tweed Fender Deluxe, and the nearly hour-long (on a single LP!) UK Aftermath, their first album of all originals, of which I just sold my ABKCo reissue (which sounded like a CD-pressed-to-LP to me). And to read Paul Trynka's bio of Brian Jones. Once a record geek, always a record geek.

When not geeking out on vintage Stones, I've lately been immersing myself in the works of Joni Mitchell and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This will require some 'splaining. First, Joni...

In my maturity, I have developed the taste my big sister had when we were in high school. It's her fault I know the lyrics to Broadway musicals. And it's her fault that I was exposed to things like the Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren, Laura Nyro, and Joni Mitchell that I now love but couldn't appreciate back then because they were, you know, not hard rock (we could argue about Todd but I'm thinking of his perfect pop masterpiece Something/Anything in particular).

So I used to roll my eyes white upward every time she spun Ladies of the Canyon, even as the words to "Conversation" (written about a platonic friendship with Turtle/Mother Mark Volman, I recently learned; I love the way she tosses off the line "I don't believe her") and "Rainy Night House" (a sympathetic portrait of what I imagine to be a spoiled rich kid, which lent its name to a bar I used to hear advertised on the radio back on Long Island) were etching themselves in my synapses. Even "Morning Morgantown" (although I used to imagine the chorus was "All your teeth are colored brown").

Working in the record store, I heard Joni's '76 release Hejira a lot when it was new, and the words to "Song for Sharon" stayed with me for 40 years. Around that time, some bad-acting buddies and I were learning how to play Fairport Convention's "Sloth" at the house of one of the fellas' much-older (like 20 years) brother. When I asked him what the words meant, the brother paused for a moment and then said, "Everything." You could say the same about "Song for Sharon," an account of a visit to New York City in which the narrator's internal monologue touches on the way images become dreams, biology becomes destiny, and the roles chance, purpose, and acceptance play in life.

While I carried those songs in my head for years, I never actually sat down and listened to a Mitchell record until I was stationed in Korea in '82-'83. When I was homesick, I used to go to the base library (out of which I read every book I'd wanted to read for a decade, sometimes as many as four or five at a time) and listen to Doug Sahm and Band through headphones (for "Is Anybody Going To San Antone" in particular, even though the only time I'd ever been in the Mission City was for basic training).

Digging through the stacks, I found a copy of The Hissing of Summer Lawns and soon was drawn into its sound world, particularly the African drumming on "The Jungle Line" and the massed voices on "Shadows and Light." The lyrics in "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" speak powerfully and directly about women's autonomy, while the ones to the title track and "Harry's House" show why such is necessary (all of which went over my head as a 25-year-old enlistee).

Comparisons being odious, Joni was employing the same kind of jazz-rock musos who were making Steely Dan records around the same time, but the craftsmanship on her records never screamed "Look at me! Look at me!" the way it often did with "the Dan" (RIP Walter Becker). Instead, every sound served her singular vision and idiosyncratic melodic sense. So it was only after I bought a copy of Hejira a couple of years ago, for instance, that I realized sounds I'd always assumed came from keyboards actually originated from her overdubbed guitars and Jaco Pastorius' bass. We live, we learn. Her approach was simple (as she explains in the liner notes to the useful Love Has Many Faces box set, which enabled me to catch up on her work -- including orchestrated, retrospective versions of earlier works -- when I decided to pick up the thread a couple of years ago): "The words are the leader."

Her melodies are like Wayne Shorter solos -- she loved the Miles bands that made Nefertiti and In A Silent Way, and cats like Wayne and Herbie Hancock love her back (Wayne's been a frequent collaborator, and Herbie cut a whole album of her music -- 2007's River: The Joni Letters). Unlike many of her male singer-songwriter contemporaries (um, Mr. Reed, Mr. Young, Mr. Dylan), she could really sing (The Range Place classifies her as a "Blue Mezzo" up till '84, a "Cloudy Contralto" thereafter; a lifetime of cigarette smoking didn't help), but her delivery was always conversational because that's the way she wrote.

Comparisons with some of those men rankled; there's a story in the Love Has Many Faces essay about a visit with Dylan and their shared label boss, David Geffen, when she finished the magnificent Court and Spark (only to have it ignored by Geffen while Dylan's less-than-snazz Planet Waves was lauded) that tells it better than I could. Daughters always have to work harder than sons for validation, it seems. "I had a painter's ego -- I took pride in discovering new things," she writes. "I had a painter's ability to self-adjudicate." With the extensive literature surrounding Dylan and particularly Reed (my hero, who has no less than four new bios due), I've made the songwriter-fan's mistake of wallowing in biographical trivia or English major-like explication. I've tried to avoid that with Mitchell, although David Yaffe's Reckless Daughter, due out October 17, looks as though it might be an exception to the songwriter-bio rule.

Finally, Fischer-Dieskau was my father's favorite singer, ranked by those who know right up there with Jussi Bjorling (my mother's fave) among the great vocalists of the 20th century. I was reminded of him by a recent New Yorker piece in which the writer referred to the great German baritone's recording of Schubert's song cycle Winterreise as being emblematic of the Cold War era. Now when I remember asking my physicist father, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, what would happen if a Soviet nuke fell on Manhattan (I grew up 60 miles from there; he told me, after which "duck and cover" drills at school seemed particularly silly and pointless), that's the music I hear in the background (the '62 version with piano accompaniment by Gerald Moore, even though thatun wasn't released until a year later).

Assisted by Alex Ross (whose book The Rest Is Noise hipped me to, among other things, the Wagner family's infatuation with Hitler and the U.S. Army's post-World War II sponsorship of German modernism -- for propaganda purposes, of course), I've begun my descent down the Fischer-Dieskau rabbit hole, which is even deeper (his discography lists 5,199 items) than Braxton's or the Dead's. I'm currently immersing myself in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, written to be performed at the consecration (also in 1962) of the new Coventry cathedral, which replaced one destroyed by German bombs. Britten's work juxtaposes the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems by the British poet Wilfred Owen (killed a week before the World War I armistice) -- most poignantly, his "Strange Meeting." At its premiere performance, it was to be sung by British, German, and Russian soloists. In the event, the Russian soprano was prevented from attending by the Soviet government, but she was able to make the recording session that the composer conducted.

I'm working my way up to a Wagner opera. In the fullness of time, it seems my father's weekly listens to Strauss and Wagner at pain threshold volume prepared me for the Who and Hendrix's different kind of sturm und drang. My wife reminds me that when he died in New Jersey, a bolt of lightning struck a tree in our neighbor's yard. He would have loved that. My plan is to spend four hours on or about October 4 (his birthday my sister informs me, not the 3rd) listening to Fischer-Dieskau in the Furtwangler recording of Tristan und Isolde. We'll see how that goes.


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